Minato ward has been, for many years, one of tokyo’s more cosmopolitan areas due to a higher-than-average foreign presence. Many embassies, for instance, are concentrated in the roppongi, azabu and akasaka districts. Likewise, a good number of foreign companies and international schools are located here, creating an environment where a lot of businesses are geared toward serving the expat community. At times english is more often heard in the street than japanese.
The ward’s love/hate affair with the foreign contingent began soon after WWII, when Roppongi, after being flattened by aerial bombing raids during the war, was occupied by the US army. This in turn led to the area’s rise as an entertainment and nightlife district, with many bars, restaurants and cafes sharing space with an ever-expanding nightclub scene so much that in the 1970s and ‘80s Roppongi had the city’s greatest concentration of discos. After the ‘90s recession and police crackdown on many yakuza- and foreign-run establishments, the area has been revived at the turn of the century by several major corporate investments which have resulted in the construction of the Roppongi Hills, Izumi Garden Tower, and Tokyo Midtown high-rise complexes that combine apartments and offices with highbrow art and entertainment spaces.
While Roppongi and the surrounding districts have very few otaku shops and eateries, it has become one of the most interesting locations in Tokyo for cultural events including anime- and manga-related festivals as well as a favorite pilgrimage destination for fans who are eager to visit the places where many anime take place.
Our exploration starts from Roppongi Station. Let’s take Exit 3, the closest one to Roppongi Crossing, traditionally considered the center of the neighborhood. From there we can go either left or right. Let’s go left first, along Roppongi-dori and the elevated Shuto Expressway. After about 300 meters we see a long flight of stairs, on top of which we find the 238-meter-tall Roppongi Hills Mori Tower guarded by Maman, a bronze sculpture of a giant spider by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. While in this huge “New Urban Center,” we won’t find any otaku shops or eateries, a number of pop culture-oriented events take place in the plaza and, most importantly, the Mori Arts Center Gallery on the 52nd floor often holds blockbuster anime and manga exhibitions, particularly in summer. It is in this building, by the way, that the Pokemon Company has its headquarters.
Now back to Roppongi Station’s Exit 3, this time let’s go right to Roppongi Crossing past Almond, a rather unremarkable cafe that the locals for some reason pronounce “amando” and most people use as a meeting spot (without ever going inside). At the intersection many people turn left to reach the Tokyo Midtown complex, but we prefer to go in the opposite direction. This street (Gaien Higashi-dori) is full of shops and restaurants. Our next destination is the Roa Building where the Kaidan Live Bar Thriller Night is located. Finding the place is easy because across the street we can see a bright yellow ド ン・キホーテ sign. That’s Don Quijote, of course, and this branch of the popular discount chain is full of kitschy junk including costumes, masks, toys and other otaku goods. But back to Kaidan, this bar is a must for fans of Japanese ghost/horror stories. The place itself is decorated with skeletons, skulls, chains and cobwebs hanging from faux-grimy walls, but the real attraction is the storyteller who comes out every hour and scares the bejesus out of the customers with his tall tales of the macabre. The 15-minute performance is included in the 60-minute 3,500 yen all-you-can-drink menu, and don’t worry if you don’t understand Japanese because the spooky atmosphere (heightened by the screams of terrorized customers) makes up for the language barrier.
AROUND TOKYO TOWER
Tokyo tower is one of tokyo’s few recognizable landmarks and one of the city’s best observation points; from the early ‘60s it was thanks to its antennas that the main national tv channels broadcasted anime and tokusatsu shows to millions of viewers, and for many years it’s been a regular feature in many anime and manga stories and monster movies.
Apart from Sailor Moon, where it appears almost in every episode because the characters live not far from it, the tower is the first thing we see in Air Gear’s opening title sequence (with Air Treks-wearing Ikki sitting on the roof of the first observation deck) while the three junior high school girls who star in Magic Knight Rayearth are taken to another world while visiting the tower on a school field trip (a traditional excursion for many out-of-towners). Then there’s the 1980s hit manga Please Save My Earth featuring seven-year-old Rin trying to use the 333-meter-tall communications tower to broadcast radio signals to the moon where she thinks a group of alien scientists live. The list is long and includes Cardcaptor Sakura, Digimon, Burnup-Up Excess (in the first episode, a similar-looking Neo Tokyo Tower is attacked by a swarm of robotic insects), Death Note and—arguably the top of the crop—best friends Kamui and Fuma battling it out at the end of the apocalyptic X/1999.
While the tower itself is definitely worth a visit, many otaku these days are actually more attracted by the Tokyo One Piece Tower amusement park located in the Foot Town underneath. The many attractions include a tour of the pirate ship conducted by Chopper; a mirror maze; and a training camp where you become a swordsman and help Zoro fight off an attack from the sea
There’s also a live show with lots of special effects, and of course two gift shops (one outside the park), a restaurant and the Café Mugiwara.